Deion Sanders is three games into his first stint as coach of a Power 5 college football team.
Phil Jackson won a record 11 NBA titles and is considered one of basketball’s all-time great coaches.
One of Jackson’s former players, Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, has already seen enough to start making comparisons between the two coaches. Shaq told TMZ that Sanders’ stoic demeanor during Colorado’s comeback win over Colorado State on Saturday looked awfully familiar.
“When they were down 15, there was a camera panned to Deion’s face, and it reminded me of Phil Jackson,” O’Neal said. “And I’ve always said, ‘If the general doesn’t panic, the troops don’t panic.’ And I told my boys, ‘Watch this.’”
Sanders has transformed a Colorado program that won just one game last season into the talk of college football. The Buffaloes are 3-0, ranked No. 19 in the latest Associated Press poll and have an undeniable swagger that reflects that of their superstar coach, who is a two-time Super Bowl champion and a college and pro football Hall of Famer.
O’Neal said the situation is similar to that of the Lakers when Jackson took over as coach before the 1999-2000 season. Despite having Shaq and Kobe Bryant on the roster, the Lakers had been swept out of the playoffs the previous two seasons. So they were more than willing to follow the lead of their new head coach, who had already won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls.
The Lakers won the first of three straight NBA titles that season.
“I know exactly what the [Colorado] kids are going through because when you are standing in front of someone that has an impressive resume, and you’re trying to get to the level he get to, everything you say is golden,” O’Neal told TMZ. “I felt that way when Phil Jackson first came to the Lakers. Before he got there, me and Kobe, we got swept all the time. But when he came there and stepped in the locker room and we saw he didn’t panic, it taught us not to panic.
“We know that this guy knows what he’s talking about. Everybody watched him win six rings in Chicago. He knows exactly what he’s talking about. So I know when the defense is listening to [Sanders], I know they’re locked in. I know when the offense is listening to him, they’re locked in.”
Just how impressive has Sanders been this season?
“Deion right now is the best coach in college football,” O’Neal said. “You heard it here first.”
Actually, we heard it first from Sanders himself during a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday night. Asked by reporter Jon Wertheim to name the best coach in college football, Coach Prime didn’t hesitate.
“Let me see a mirror so I can look at him,” Sanders said.
“You feel that?” Wertheim said.
“What, you think I’m gonna sit up here and tell you somebody else?” Sanders replied. “You think that’s the way I operate? That somebody else got that on me?”
But there is someone Sanders idolizes in the same manner as his own players do him or O’Neal did Jackson: Alabama coach Nick Saban, a seven-time national champion who co-stars with Sanders in Aflac commercials.
“Every time I do a commercial with coach Saban, it’s a gift,” Sanders said. “Just sitting in his presence and hearing him and throwing something else out there so I can hear his viewpoint on it, because he’s forgotten more things than I may ever accomplish. So I’m a student looking up to this wonderful teacher saying, ‘Just, just, just throw me a crumb of what you know.’”
ESPN reported Tuesday that Colorado’s win over Colorado State drew 9.3 million viewers, the most ever for a late-night college football game on the network. During the first half of that game, star receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter was injured on a late hit by Colorado State’s Henry Blackburn.
Hunter suffered a lacerated liver on the hit and will likely miss multiple games. “It’s football at the end of the day,” Hunter said Monday on his weekly YouTube show. “That stuff happens.”
Colorado State coach Jay Norvell said Monday that Blackburn and his family, who live in Boulder, have received death threats since the incident and that police have been involved because of the serious nature of the threats.
Sanders told reporters Tuesday that the death threats are “very unfortunate.”
“I’m saddened if there’s any of our fans that’s on the other side of those threats — I would hope and pray not,” Sanders said. “But that kid was just playing the best of his ability and he made a mistake. I forgive him. CU, our team forgives him. Travis, he’s forgiven him. Let’s move on. That kid does not deserve that.”
Sanders and the Buffaloes visit No. 10 Oregon on Saturday and host No. 5 USC on Sept. 30.